'Hello, I'm Leigh Wood, I'm a boxer…' Mick Conlan will have to rip belt away from WBA champion in Nottingham

Leigh Wood beat China's Can Xu to become WBA featherweight champion. Picture Mal McCann.
Andy Watters

BRENDAN Ingle, the Dublin-born guru of Sheffield boxing, was his mentor.

Leigh Wood - who defends his WBA featherweight title against Mick Conlan on March 12 in his native Nottingham - went to Ingle’s Gym in the Steel City after he’d dropped off the GB team for the European Championships in 2011.

The fight game, says Wood, had “gone a bit sour” so he turned to Ingle for counsel and the wise old coach said: “Right, let’s do it, let’s turn pro”.

That’s what happened but first Wood had to come through a period of soul-searching. Was boxing the right move for him? He had to convince himself that it was.

“I argued with myself,” he says.

“I told myself: ‘This might happen, that might happen. It’s going to be hard but you have to see it through, so make a decision now: Are you going to do it or are you not?’”

Obviously he decided to throw heart and soul into the fight game and stick it out no matter what came against him: Injuries, defeats, inactivity, poverty… He made his professional debut in October of that year with Ingle in his corner.

“Brendan was a crazy teacher,” says Wood with a smile.

“We did loads of stuff. He used to take us to the steam room at the swimming pool and there’d be random people sitting in it and he’d tell you to stand up and tell the people your name, where you’re from and what you do.

“I got up: ‘Hello, I’m Leigh Wood, I’m a boxer…’”

Ingle, who guided Prince Naseem and Johnny Nelson among others to world title stardom, predicted the same for Wood. Sadly he passed away in 2018 and his sons Dominic and John took over running the gym. They did things their way and Wood found himself pushed down the pecking order. The fights dried up, momentum stalled and he began to stagnate on the sidelines.

The lowest point came just before Christmas in 2018.

“The Ingles let me down for a British title fight for the third time,” he says.

“I hadn’t boxed in a year but I’d been in the gym every day for the entire year. I was really low and I remember crying and I decided to leave the Ingles which was a big thing for me because Brendan had brought me to the gym and he used to tell me: ‘You’re going to be British, Commonwealth, European and World champion and I hope to God I see it.’

“I believed him but when he passed away the gym changed.”

Wood packed his gear and moved on. Where to? Anywhere but Sheffield. Through sheer bloody-mindedness he kept going and eventually hooked up with Josh Taylor coach Ben Davidson.

He has improved beyond recognition in the last couple of years.

In July last year Eddie Hearn got him a shot at Can Xu’s WBA featherweight title. Wood had six weeks’ notice and expectations outside his inner circle were low but from the first bell he was in charge of the fight and was heading for a comprehensive points win when he took the decision out of the judges’ hands. A right hook dropped the Chinese in the last and the referee stepped in to wave it off before the end of the round.

“I’ve come here the hard way and not just the fights,” says Wood.

“I’ve had to go through a lot in my life, I’ve been broke for 10 years and I’ve had to literally just grind through and scrimp and save. I’ve boxed for free three times – I didn’t get paid – and I’ve boxed on away bills and I’ve boxed when I’ve been the underdog.

“A sponsor used to give my 50-odd quid a week and literally I was getting by on that. I have a lot of good friends around me and good family but the biggest thing that I would say to anyone was just my sheer resilience and determination to get to where I wanted to get to.

“I’ve worked extremely hard to get into this position and I’m not prepared to let it slip and have to climb that ladder and go back down that road again.”

As the defending champion he’ll have home advantage against Conlan. He’ll have a full training camp behind him too and says he wants to “look even better” against Ireland’s Olympic medallist and world amateur champion.

Yes, he’s the bigger puncher in the fight but he’s not a devastating one-dig KO artist for all that. He says his boxing skills and his undoubted heart for battle will win him the fight.

“Mick can dig, he can definitely crack,” he says.

“He has punch power himself but I can win this fight without my power. The strategy we’ve got, the way we’re working on this fight, I could definitely win it without my power but it’s good to have it in my arsenal.”

Victory will mean he keeps his title and will add another sizeable wedge to a bank account that lay dormant for many years. A unification battle against the winner of Josh Warrington versus Kiko Martinez is set up for the victor but Wood says he’s not in boxing for the belts or the money – it’s the wins he wants and taking Conlan’s scalp will mean a lot.

“The belts are good for the fans and your family and friends to pass around and have photos with but they don’t mean a great deal to me,” he says.

“Even the money, the money doesn’t mean a great deal to me. It’s nice to have that security and to be able to secure my family’s future but to me it’s more about the legacy and the history and being able to look back and say: ‘I beat him, I beat him and I beat him…”

Sadly Brendan Ingle didn’t live to see Leigh Wood win the world title but his former protégé recalls what he used to say: ‘Winning a world title is hard, holding on to it is even harder’.

Mick Conlan will have to rip that belt out of his hands.

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